The golden age of movie comedy may be right now.
A gaggle of slaphappy artists and entertainers have made talking smart as much of a kick for the audience as talking at all was to the pioneers of movie sound.
At the comic nadir of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mel Brooks went into decline, Woody Allen turned "serious" and the first wave of Saturday Night Live comics seemed content to toss ingredients into a crockpot and bind them together with outlandish schtick and saucy dialogue.
But today's comic wizards - such as Christopher Guest, Sacha Baron Cohen, Barry Levinson, Will Ferrell (and his frequent co-writer and director, Adam McKay), and the animators at Pixar - have learned how to choreograph chaos from masters like Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges and the late Robert Altman.
Altman's last film, A Prairie Home Companion, released in theaters in June and on DVD last month, shows that he could still marry verbal and visual slapstick without making it look, sound or feel like a shotgun wedding. And he continued to form emotional patterns that paid off, especially when Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin held the screen with their daffy sister act or Lindsay Lohan, as Streep's daughter, found her voice belting out a fractured version of "Frankie and Johnny."
Family and the professional troupes or hobbyists who become like family, and the confounding intersections of these groups, like those in A Prairie Home Companion, have been mainstays of stage and movie comedy ever since that seminal hardboiled farce, The Front Page.
They've fueled a string of successes for Christopher Guest and his stock company, from the small-town stage actors of Waiting for Guffman and the dog-show enthusiasts of Best in Show to the indie filmmakers and actors of For Your Consideration. Guest applies his own feathery touch to inspired Altman-like improvisations.
A Mighty Wind, his splendid study of aging folkies, boasted the most wonderful title for a Guest film yet, because his movies are incomparably breezy.
He and his favorite actors - including stalwarts Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer and Eugene Levy, as well as Parker Posey, who gets better from film to film - never fail to issue a series of puffs, drafts and zephyrs that create a complete comic weather system. You want to see Guest's films again to feel the fresh farcical air on the back of your neck.
The first complete big-screen analysis of corrupting buzz, For Your Consideration has its share of big moments. O'Hara, playing a too-long unsung actress who gets talked about as a possible Oscar nominee on the Internet, brings down the house when she emerges from a vortex of promotion. She's so extremely Botoxed, she can crack a smile - she just can't uncrack it.
But it's the detailed ensemble work that repays reviewing. Levy, an out-for-his-own agent, assures Shearer, his woebegone client, that the actor's career is the most important thing to him. Then, without any hesitation or underlining, he interrupts himself to take a cell phone call. Guest's movies are the kind of silly symphonies you can get only from a platoon of simpatico performers.
Still, it isn't just live-action masters like Guest who've learned how to unite the casual and the cunning with funny sights and sounds. The animation sorcerers at Pixar picked up their crack timing and stagecraft from the silent comedians (especially Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd), but have stayed on top by keeping abreast of the best topical humor. It's perfect that in Cars, the unseen agent for the speed-addicted hero is played by Jeremy Piven, agent Ari from HBO's Entourage.
And it isn't just entertainers known for collaboration who've acknowledged the importance of team play.
Will Ferrell is one Saturday Night Live star who never fails to surround himself with the very best, even if it means losing laughs to them. In Stranger than Fiction, Ferrell is superb as a discombobulated IRS auditor - you seem to hear his eyes rattle in his head. But so is Emma Thompson, as the blocked novelist and emotionally coiled woman who's narrating the auditor's life. Steve Carell broke through in 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin but was already a scream as the weatherman to Ferrell's Anchorman. Sacha Baron Cohen became an instant comic legend with Borat. But he pushed Ferrell to the limit as the gay French Formula One racer in Talladega Nights, reading Camus while trying to steal the NASCAR crown from Ferrell's exuberant stock-car champ, Ricky Bobby.
Even Borat is far from a one-man show. Indeed, the genius of the movie is the way Cohen turns all his real-life supporting players into multidimensional sidekicks. Far from merely being foils, they're characters capable of their own odd turns, such as the woman who thoughtfully teaches him contemporary American toilet habits at a proper dinner.
For that matter, even one-man shows, like John Waters' This Filthy World, can encompass more of the world than a single artist's view of it. One of the most pleasing aspects of Waters' film is its generosity: He pays tribute to all his key collaborators, especially his late drag-star muse, Divine.
Because comics must tune themselves closely to audiences, comedy often changes when the culture changes. It makes sense that smart, inclusive pieces of burlesque or pure tomfoolery have erupted during an era of intense social and political debate. The last time there was this kind of tectonic slide was in 1994, when voters rejected decades of a progressive congressional agenda and moviegoers anointed a new king of comedy in the Jim Carrey of Dumb and Dumber.
But movie comedians, unlike TV comedians, link themselves to specific current events at their peril. Universal undercut Barry Levinson's Man of the Year when it sold this engaging amalgam of comedy and melodrama as a ripped-from-the-headlines farce.
Levinson himself saw Man of the Year as an heir to Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty (1940), which Universal Studios Home Entertainment has just released with six other prime Sturges creations in Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection. The Great McGinty is perfect election-year fare: It includes timeless characters such as William Demarest as a ballot-buying politician who comments, "You can't get away from arithmetic," and Akim Tamiroff as a behind-the-scenes boss who argues that without a political machine, everybody would "be at the mercy." (Of whom? The people?)
Levinson and Guest, and Ferrell and Cohen, too, owe a big debt to Sturges. He put verbal wit and visual invention into overdrive - and spearheaded the tradition that compels comedy writer-directors and actor-writer-producers to become ringmasters of the great American circus.